Blossom holds its own Bernstein party

08.24.08
Jamie Bernstein
Beacon Journal

Had Leonard Bernstein not died in 1990, he would have reached his 90th birthday on Monday. To remember him, New York City is celebrating with a Bernstein festival of musical theater, concerts and more given by the New York Philharmonic and other groups at Carnegie Hall and elsewhere. The festival runs from September to December, proof of the lasting impact the composer-conductor-music educator had on American musical life.

In Northeast Ohio, the Blossom Festival had its own Bernstein party Sunday. It was a tribute to the music Bernstein wrote for Broadway, including his most famous piece, West Side Story. The presence of Bernstein's oldest child, Jamie Bernstein, as narrator gave the evening a sense of occasion, even though the orchestra and soloists varied in quality.

Because the Cleveland Orchestra is on tour in Europe, the Blossom Festival Orchestra and guest conductor Loras John Schissel performed on Sunday. The ensemble is full of excellent Northeast Ohio players, but the standard of music-making was noticeably below that of the Cleveland Orchestra and the vocal soloists it hires.

That said, the musical selections were appealing, and Bernstein's narration tied them together with a big festive bow, using her deep, throaty voice and an exuberant delivery. It was a bonus to hear Bernstein read from the letters her father and mother, Felicia Montealegre, exchanged between Chile and the United States while separated during the creation of West Side Story.

From where I sat on the lawn, the quality of the amplification was excellent. To better connect lawn listeners with what was happening onstage, identifications of which singer was singing each role would have been nice. As it was, the charismatic narrator (charisma ran in the family) led the audience with her stories and comments through selections for vocalists and orchestra from Candide, Wonderful Town (about two sisters from Ohio in the big bad city of New York) and On the Town, the tale of WWII sailors.

A less well-known element was Slava!, an overture drawn from Bernstein's failed musical 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Slava! was dedicated to Mstislav Rostropovich, the cellist/conductor.

The second half consisted entirely of West Side Story. Singers Michelle Areyzaga, soprano; Elizabeth Shammash, mezzo-soprano; Jeffrey Picon, tenor; and David McFerrin, baritone, were joined by Akron baritone Brian Keith Johnson, making a solid appearance, for the final Tonight Quintet. An adorable encore of the song from Wonderful Town that begins, ''Why oh why oh why oh/Why did I ever leave Ohio?'' closed the show on a cheery note.